Sonja Milbourn will never forget the day she walked in to her neighborhood pizza joint,only to see a waitress charging back at her.
“She chased me down because she wanted to thank me for the book I left there,” the college professor said with a chuckle.
A week earlier,Milbourn and her 9 year-old daughter had slyly dropped a tattered copy of “Dead Man Walking” on a table there,hoping another bookworm would pick it up and join in the game.
She did,and so the journey begins.
Part book club,part behavioral study,part message-in-a-bottle experiment,BookCrossing.com connects bibliophiles across the globe,harnessing the power of the Internet to make all the world a library.
The site's members live by the “Three R's” mantra. They read,register and release.
After enjoying a good book,members register their find on the site and get a unique BookCrossing ID number (BCID). After marking the book with a catchy label,they release it “into the wild.”
Books “in the wild” land on park benches,airplane seats,in coffee shops and historic sites. Site creator Ron Hornbaker said he's also seen pictures of books left in the hands of statues.
A lot of people have also begun to leave books in public restrooms,he said. Strange? Yes. Functional? Even more so.
“It's always good to catch people when they're contemplating life,” Hornbaker said.
Hornbaker said that he was transfixed when he stumbled upon a Web site tracking disposable cameras in March 2001. Already familiar with other sites of the sort,the cogs in his head started churning as he tried to find a way to reinvent the concept.
“I've always been looking for an idea – something to do for fun,” Hornbaker said. “After a few minutes,books popped into my head,and it just clicked. People like to share books and give them to friends and family anyway.”
Four weeks later,www.BookCrossing.com was born.
Hornbaker said he's had an insatiable appetite for good books since babysitter Grandma Keeler and his parents,both teachers,introduced him to the written word as a child.
Reading hasn't taken a back seat yet. The 36-year-old is currently the president of a software development company in Kansas City,Mo.,and he's never taken a computer class. He absorbed the information from books and taught himself.
And so it was only natural that Hornbaker engineer a way for literature lovers to share in his passion.
It was slow at first,Hornbaker said. When the site celebrated its first anniversary in March 2002,only 1,200 people had signed up to read and release.
He didn't have to wait much longer,though. National Public Radio caught wind of the site,and after running a 7-minute interview with the site creator,1,600 members signed up in one day,with 3,000 more joining in the subsequent week.
Today,almost 11,000 readers in 35 countries have given away more than 26,000 books. BookCrossing.com memberships are free,and all information is kept private,Hornbaker said.
The site's leader board features top releasers and top reads. One BookCrossing.com member has registered 1,800 books. Five others have stacked up more than 500 books each since joining.
Eight-year-old Kipling Pedersen,a Sandpoint,Idaho,second-grader,is one of the site's top youth,logging 55 books in one year.
Teachers are also finding the site a handy way to encourage children to read.
“I think it's a great activity to start your child in. Not only does it teach them an appreciation of literature and books,but an appreciation of sharing their things with the word,” Hornbaker said. “It's amazing how quick kids pick up on this. If you give kids the chance,they really like to share.”
Sonja Milbourn said she has begun to use the site as a tool in her classes at Butler County Community College in El Dorado,Kansas. She teaches reading to students who need remediation training to successfully complete classes at the school.
“I think it's always amazing to see how many people are alliterate,meaning they chose not to read,” Sonja Milbourn said. “Life gets busy and people don't take the time… but it does make me sad because people don't realize what a hit they're taking to their skill level when they stop reading for enjoyment.”
The only drawback,some BookCrossers said,is the frustration of letting go of a good read and not hearing anything for weeks.
But Hornbaker said delay is part of the game. Books find their way to shelves and drawers,and amid the hustle and bustle of daily life,literature can be slow to rise to the top of the to-do list.
The lapse can also be intriguing,he said.
“The serendipity is part of the attraction,” Hornbaker said. “Sometimes we don't hear of the book again,but I think they find pleasure just in doing it. They feel good that they're sharing books with the world even if they don't get physical evidence that books are coming back.”
Regardless of the returns,the experience is exciting,Sonja Milbourn said.
“It's great to be giving for the joy of it,” Milbourn said. “It's the icing on the cake if someone gets back to you,but it's great knowing you've passed along something that you've enjoyed so much. It's just a great way to connect.”